An interview: Thom Yorke on politics, being a dad, and music
In an exclusive interview, Matt Kennard talks to Radiohead singer Thom Yorke about fatherhood, politics, music and the future of our planet.
By Matt Kennard on Wednesday, November 19th, 2008 - 2,691 words.
It’s nearly noon when Thom Yorke ambles up the street pushing his baby daughter in front of him. I’ve been sitting on a water hydrant for an hour quietly fighting the freeze as it eats through the extremities of my fingers and toes.
We are meeting in Oxford, where he lives now and near where he was bought up. It’s a beautiful city or town or hamlet and dripping in history. Elegant baroque buildings from the 18th century rise out of the ground everywhere, and gardens filled with lush iridescent compilations of shrubbery clutter the corners.
To leaven the utopian atmosphere yet further, undergraduates with square jaws and rosy cheeks fly busily down the roads on fashionably antique bikes, satchels flailing behind them.
And the whole thing is thoroughly English. Coming from London – as I did that morning – the racial dislocation is nearly as pronounced as the architecture. White faces everywhere, lots of pursed lips and a dress code of collars and jumpers. “I go to sit and have pints in the pub and read T.S. Eliot,” Yorke tells me later. “I live in Oxford, that’s what you do! You’ve got to fit in, you know what I mean?”
Right now, Yorke is dressed in a collar and jumper and some blue jeans. I recognize him, he doesn’t recognize me. “You’re Matt?” he asks as I put my hand foreward for a handshake.
He is meeting his management this morning but I have the prior appointment. His three-year-old daughter, Agnes, is asleep in the black buggy covered in an array of fabrics to keep her warm, only a sliver of her face viewable through the densely packed collection of wool and linen.
Yorke kisses her goodbye. “See you later sweetie,” he coos, giving her to a friend, and we ascend the steps of a private-members club on a side street in the center of the town. “Did you hear that piece about David Kelly on the radio this morning?” asks Julie, who works as part of his management team.
David Kelly is the weapons expert who killed himself (or was murdered) because of his principled demurral on the British governments attempt to forge a pretext for war with Iraq in the infamous ‘dodgy dossier’ saga.
In Yorke’s solo song, Harrodown Hill, he riffs on Kelly for four compelling heartfelt minutes. “Did I fall or was I pushed?” he sings in his most overt stab at agitprop lyricism.
“I didn’t hear it,” he says now. “Shame, sounds interesting.”
Yorke looks tired but his grizzled face is mesmerizing. Most striking is his lazy left eyelid which hangs half shut all the time, the result of botched surgery as a kid. His eyes are narrow, his lips are thin and it’s all bordered with a generous ration of facial hair which is verging on the ginger.
The bones trace angular routes around his face and this offers up a gaunt look; his hair is thin and matted, pressed down to one side. He has pronounced bags under his eyes.
It all looks asymmetrical but coalesces to create a powerful aesthetic moment.
We sit down at a circular wooden table which is too low to put your legs under. So we both sit and cross our legs to the side. “So what’s this about?” he asks. He finds it difficult to make eye contact and vibrates with a nervous energy when talking, which when he gets going can develop into supremely eloquent raps.
His accent is non-descript, neither posh or demotic, and his thoughts are scattergun. He pulls himself from one topic to another by just following any burning idea that fires in his brain at that moment. But for a man who has been the recipient of so much unbridled adulation, Yorke is arrestingly humble. He speaks without bluster or bombast, but there’s an intensity and seriousness befitting an activist.
His political activism – “I wouldn’t call it that,” he hits back – has sprouted into a hydra of campaigning lyrics and op-ed articles in newspapers over the past five years. The interface of politics and aesthetics has been a vexed one for a long period, for Yorke and others.
Tom Morello, the guitarist of the Rage Against the Machine, once remarked: “A good song should make you wanna tap your feet and get with your girl. A great song should destroy copcars and set fire to the suburbs. I’m only interested in writing great songs.” What, I wonder, is Yorke’s opinion on the fraught relationship between the political and the creative?
“I wonder if you did a Venn diagram of how they coincided, or if you did a straw poll of their sympathies in terms of art what you’d get back,” he says. “I guess it depends on how broad you see you the definitions of politics, and how broad you see the definition of art or music.
“If you see art and music as something that extends beyond this little bit of plastic that goes in your CD machine, and if you see politics as something that’s happening not just in the House of Parliament, then I think you can’t use that argument at all – it’s utter bollocks.”
There have been unavoidable crossovers for Yorke. Conservative Party leader David Cameron is a confessed Radiohead acolyte and has named Fake Plastic Trees as his favorite song. George Bush’s daughter, Jenna, was present at a Radiohead concert in New York City. Remarking on the event on the Radiohead blog, Dead Air Space, Yorke wrote, “our lot chose not to tell me who was in the building before we went on. probably a good idea.”
“You’ll never change them,” Yorke says when I ask about the temptation to lobby these admirers. “They’re going to get more from you than you get from them generally speaking – unless they happen to coincide with what you’re trying to say. I was kind of taking the piss when I invited David Cameron to the Friends of the Earth show that we did – it started off as a joke, Well if he keeps banging on about like how he wants the Conservatives to be this environmental party – he fucking turns up! And we thought we should invite everyone else as well – so I wrote to Gordon Brown as well, quite funny.”
Despite his evident passion, Yorke seems reluctant to assume any role as a voice of his generation. “I’d dearly love to not be interested in it at all,” he says. “It is ultimately a very sterile, barren, place to spend your time thinking of things. Even back in college, you get involved in it initially and then you see all the petty wranglings going on, and you think, This is so pathetic, and you want to get the fuck out really.”
But petty political wrangling has blighted the band too. In March 2005, Cambridge-educated Colin Greenwood and Radiohead bassist posted a link to a puff review of the book “What’s Left” by journalist Nick Cohen. Cohen’s book was a prolix screed which railed against the political left whom he supposed was getting into bed with Islamic fundamentalist in the aftermath of 9/11. Cohen – like his American analogue, Paul Berman – had supported the war in Iraq and was having a very public ideological breakdown. “We have many arguments about it,” Yorke says. “I was really furious about that. It was like, Well, no, actually, I don’t necessarily agree with this book at all. But Colin has discovered the land of the blog. And I don’t trust blogs – unless you have the nerve to put it on paper and print and publish, you should be wary of what’s being said. I think people write what they write on blogs with the luxury of knowing it won’t have any effect and therefore it can be more polemic.”
Yorke is adamant he has no power to influence anything himself. I tell him I disagree. “I recently had an argument with Jonathan Glazer about it,” Yorke says, referring to the director of manifold Radiohead music videos. “We’ve kept in contact with him on and off over the years. This is my argument with him: I think there’s a danger of assuming that you have a voice in that way, but at the say time I can’t help commenting on things I feel strongly about, but I think that’s my prerogative as a member of the human race, rather than, I’m a star, and I’ve discovered this!”
Yorke spent his undergraduate days studying Fine Art and English at the University of Exeter, sat on the skinny promontory jutting out of south-west England. The five members of Radiohead had all met at school, but at university Yorke met the ‘sixth member’ – Stanley Donwood. Donwood’s artwork has become synonymous with the band and his etchings have been plastered across the jacket covers of every album and website that bears the Radiohead name.
“I had a really good friend of mine at university who went into politics behind the scenes,” says Yorke. “I used to go out with him all the time talking about it, but by the time I left college I was like, Fucking forget it. And the thing that got me back into it was Noam Chomsky…”
“Well I think it was a combination of what was happening to us at the time – we’d starting touring in America a lot, signed to this big corporate label, and we’d had all this success and people talking to us in a very peculiar way, spending a lot of time at the exposed end of the media. It was almost being at the saturated side of it – you go into the gym at the hotel and there you’d be on the MTV, it was just everywhere. And it was all a bit like, What is this, what is going on here? We’ve suddenly become part of this cultural emblem that’s being used all over the world, you know, along with Nirvana and all that.
“And in the midst of that going home and Rachel had recorded this Chomsky thing, Manufacturing Consent, and I watched it when I got home. So I started reading Chomsky and started getting back into it really.”
Noam Chomsky is the most prominent academic critic of U.S. foreign policy in the world, and the hero of a wide selection of rock groups. R.E.M, Rage Against The Machine and Pearl Jam – amongst others – have been known to take time out to read excerpts of his work at concerts.
“They have no idea!” says Yorke when I ask about the awareness of the American populace to their countries nefarious actions in the world. “But I think the Iraq thing has been interesting – the mainstream press took a long time to come around, but when they did come round it was a big thing. When they did start, they were exposing it for what it was.
“On a day to day basis, yeah, it’s a very isolated place in a lot of way. But the upside of the US has always been for me that when they do find out about things they react a lot faster than people in this country, for example. They’re very animated, very quickly.”
Yorke was born on October 7th 1968. He is now creeping up to 40-years-old, but radiates an aura of youth. His teenage angst and irascibility have never evaporated. His father was a chemical equipment salesman which meant Yorke had to endure a peripatetic childhood, moving around the country whimsically. At 13 Thom was finally settled at the private boys school Abingdon College where he met Johnny and Colin Greenwood, who play guitar and bass respectively in Radiohead, Ed O’Brien, guitarist and backing singer, and Phil Selway, the drummer. Thom was given his first guitar at age 7 and has never stopped playing since.
Early Radiohead music was suffused with anomie and the sense of not belonging, themes which still appear, although is more oblique manifestations in recent offerings. Yorke has battled bouts of depression all throughout his life, but he retains a optimism about the human condition. “I think it’s just about if you give people the correct information, if you let them see, if things are open – I’m still thinking of the anarchist thing in a way – if you are open about your proceedings and stuff, and honest with people about your mistakes and stuff, then human nature will go along with what people do.
“There’s a general will for everyone to avoid suffering and to avoid trouble and actually get along with each other. I think a lot of the time politicians use schisms between people to get their own power which is terrifying.”
In early 2006 Yorke released his first solo project, the album Eraser, which sparked rumours of the band splitting up. I ask about the difference pressures of releasing a solo work and receiving mixed reviews. “I didn’t read any of it,” he says. “I don’t read any of it now anyway. It happened really fast. The finishing of it was like, Oh it’s done, better put it out then! And then I didn’t really think about it at all until the week it was out. I was like, Oh shit! I mean I did do a few interviews but not a lot, and I was on tour with the band anyway, so it wasn’t stressful at all actually, it was really interesting…”
Yorke is free of the vanity and status-anxiety that normally afflicts successful artists who soak up the hype around them. He speaks rapidly, is creative with syntax, and discards sentences mid-way through if he doesn’t like their trajectory. There is no show. There is no façade. “I don’t have any choice about doing music for the rest of my life,” he says. “I mean, I wish that… well, it’s sort of happening now, we’re sort of going through a transition period really, where we used to have a big contract and things worked a certain way, and that way things used to work has basically almost dissolved.
“So working out how you put music out and all that stuff is a big issue now, and that effects how you see making music, it’s all very cloudy at the moment that whole thing, which is cool, you know, it’s quite exciting really because I still have this sort of old baggage about finishing things and then having to justify them for a year and half for all these Sunday Paper column inches analyzing what I’ve said in the words – why do that?… Bollocks!”
Radiohead’s sixth album, In Rainbows, was released on the internet without a record label. Fans were allowed to pay as much as they wanted for the 10-track album. It was a revolutionary moment in the internet-music world and inspired various acts to follow the lead. His disdain for the media circus that accompanies his music is palpable and it is no act. He is even wary of people in the bar with us. A young patrician undergraduate sat near to us about half-way through the interview, and Yorke stopped speaking and looked at him warily. “Don’t say anything,” he told me as he picked up my voice recorder and turned it off. He looked shifty and worried. “Idiot,” he said under his breath. We sat in silence for about three painful minutes as I tried to gauge what was going on. His ability to summon wrath for the most arrogant and supercilious humans is, in my opinion, his most admirable and revealing quality.
The young man who had disturbed our interlocution eventually got up to leave. Yorke turned the recorder back on and starts again, seamlessly. Yorke credits Michael Stipe, lead singer of R.E.M., with helping him through the very difficult period after the release of OK Computer in 1997, when he was finding it very difficult to deal with pressure of fame and adulation. Now he refuses to the idolatry even exists. “I don’t think we have adulation like that now, generally, which is good,” he says. What about the open-jawed kids I saw in Berkeley last summer at their open air concert at the Greek Theatre? “I think that’s because they were stoned!” he exclaims.
Matt Kennard graduated from the Journalism School at Columbia University as a Toni Stabile Investigative scholar in 2008. He has written for the Guardian, Salon and the Chicago Tribune, amongst others. In 2006 he won the Guardian Student Feature Writer of the Year Award.
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